Peter Thiel, the billionaire entrepreneur who brought the world PayPal, is putting money into testing an experimental vaccine that could be used to combat the herpes virus.
Ordinarily, such news would be cause for celebration, but there’s a catch — Thiel is conducting his research outside of U.S. jurisdiction, in order to avoid the medical bureaucracy of the Food and Drug Administration. And the FDA is not happy about it.
The major point of contention is that Thiel is testing on human subjects — people who already have herpes and have volunteered to be flown out to his facility. According to the FDA, this violates the principles of medical ethics and could put people’s lives in danger. They are condemning Thiel’s research as dangerous and unethical.
I do not wish to dismiss these concerns, or full-throatedly defend what Thiel is doing; medical ethics bring up many complex and serious issues that should be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis. But Thiel does have a point, in that the FDA’s standards are so rigid that they have a stifling effect on innovation. He has observed that “you would not be able to invent the polio vaccine today” due to the stringent controls of government regulators, and he’s probably right.
Bringing new drugs to market can take decades and cost billions, as developers are forced to jump through countless regulatory hoops. It’s no wonder that someone like Thiel, who thrives on disrupting the status quo with radical innovation, would find such restrictions unacceptable, and use his wealth to color outside the lines.